We are living in times in which the poor count, when state benefits for development ought to be available to the most marginalised in society. From this overarching commitment, which in a sense defines policy, intent across sectors is the crucial importance of counting the poor.
Doubtless then that any process which attempts to count India's staggering numbers of poor should be based on a rigour as well as ingenuity to factor in the mind-boggling data which arises from the field. The criticality of the process cannot be over-emphasised. This is the base from which all development processes to benefit the poor will flow.
So what do we see in the execution of this mammoth exercise? According to the emerging figures from the latest Census, more than 17 crore families are living below the poverty line. But herein lies the rub. The Centre has declared that only 8 crore families live below the poverty line and is imposing this figure on the states.
This is a grave anomaly, which assumes a different dimension at the planning stage of committing resources and then goes on to the implementation stage. If there is a basic disagreement on the figures as perceived by the Centre and the states, it is likely that chunks of population who are actually poor will not be catered to.
This is not the first time this happened. Crores of families have been excluded not because they are not poor but because they do not fit into the enumeration framework adopted by the Centre.
So who by definition is poor? The Planning Commission believes that in the village, a person who spends less than Rs. 15/- a day is poor while in the cities, it is a person who spends less than Rs.20/- a day. What is the basis for this? I would suggest anyone in any city to go out and buy things, which they require in one day, put it in a box and study it and contemplate how this can constitute a decent standard of living. This amount set by the Planning Commission incidentally includes expenses of education, health which makes reality check even more remote.
It in a sense means leaving the poor with very little access to government aid and schemes to combat hunger, disease, illiteracy, homelessness and leave them at the mercy of an economic and political order that is insensitive to their situation despite stated policy to the contrary.
At the root of these anomalies, there seems to be a clear lack of focus of the identity of the person we have in mind when we talk of the poor. What is this person's life like, what are the resources available to him/her? What does he or she need to break out the cycle of poverty and how best can this government provide them? Instead we have a gaggle of indicators that do not add up to a comprehensive picture to identify the poor.
The Ministry of Rural Development has set seven indicators of deprivation. A family living in one room; of mud walls and a non-concrete roof is one such used to determine poverty. A family with no adult defined as a person aged between 16-59 years is an indicator. So is a household being woman- headed family with no male member between 16-59 years. Then a family with handicapped member with no able-bodied adult.
Dalit or Adivasi families are part of thee indicators as is a family with no literate member over the age of 25 years. A landless family earning their living through physical labour is an indicator.
Notice however that nowhere in the set of 'comprehensive indicators' is there any clue about what people eat, the situation of their health, how much are they able to spend on education? What about people who are migrants or displaced due to any calamity, natural or manmade? These deserving categories are conspicuous by their absence.
In the new set of indicators of poverty, a person with a motorbike would not be considered poor, treated at par with four wheeler owner. A person with refrigerator in the house will be considered rich.
People with mobile and landline phone will also not be considered poor. This may seem reasonable but does not quite work out like that. Consider a vegetable seller who in order to cover a wider area decides to purchase an old Moped. He would be eased out of the category based on this one asset. Following the same logic, a farmer owning a credit card, would be considered rich. He may be steeped in debt despite this one fact.
The same lack of sensitivity, of a nuanced approach reflects in its definition of 'landless' people. According to this, a landless person will be considered poor only if he does physical labour. If that person takes to a petty trade or job like becoming a barber, a tailor, a mechanic, his being landless will be in a sense nullified.
This is like allowing only a partial reality to prevail. What is obvious in such a case is that is the landlessness driving the person to seek other trades. A similar discordant note is struck while dealing with legally released bonded labour families. These families even after they are released and rehabilitated should be considered poor. However, this does not always happen and many families get left out in the cold.
Meanwhile the process lacking in substance and sensitivity has got tech-savvy. The operations will be paperless. Each surveyor will have a Tablet Computer, a little bigger than a mobile phone into which he or she will enter the details.
The concern is whether the surveyors mostly village Patwaris, ASHA workers are being given the training and skills required. According to the defined process, the list is to be vetted by the Gram Sabha which can make it strong on authenticity but it becomes meaningless in the face of the Planning Commission's cap on the poverty figures.
Will this survey of BPL also end up as an elaborate, exhaustive exercise, missing the real poor in our country, asks the Charkha Development Communication network. The resources that are going into it are phenomenal but would the results be anything substantial for those who are excluded and condemned to live on the fringes for want of a more responsive, transparent process? By Sachin Kumar Jain ANI)